Films that showed us the world

Iranian cartoonists, Swedish vampires and Bombay brainboxes – when we asked film-makers and industry figures for their picks of the year they went global
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Danny Boyle - Director
Set in a wintry northern Sweden, in the dazzling white of perpetual night, Let the Right One In will make your heart race like Usain Bolt's. It's a love story about two 12-year-olds – although one of them has been 12 for a very long time and isn't really a girl. Violent and intensely romantic, it has a Kubrick-like indifference to what we think of as acceptable. It deserves to challenge our national aversion to dubbing.

Gurinder Chadha - Director
Slumdog Millionaire is Danny Boyle's finest. What makes it such a great film is the energy – it soars. It takes you on a fantastic journey because you have no idea where the film is going from the beginning. It doesn't shy away from some quite harrowing scenes – where I actually had to close my eyes and put my fingers in my ears. The performances of the young kids are fantastic. Danny has shot the slums of Bombay with so much energy that in many ways it reminded me of City of God at the beginning.

Noel Clarke - Actor and director
I think The Dark Knight is a really solid superhero film that doesn't alienate non-superhero fans. Batman is very real. He is a man who can still be hurt. It concentrates on the police system and the Mafia, as well as the crazed Joker, but it is a gangland film like The Godfather or Heat. For this sort of film in the superhero genre the performances by Christian Bale and Heath Ledger were great throughout the film. It made the film a classic. Even my wife liked it.

Ken Loach - Director
The film I really enjoyed was Kenny Glenaan's Summer, starring Robert Carlyle and Steve Evets. It's a story set in the East Midlands, about two childhood friends in their forties who are mutually dependent on each other. They are both on benefits and one is ill and dying. It is full of humanity and humour. It is very simply done and compassionate. You get drawn into the characters as the intricacies of their relationship are gradually revealed. You see the bright hopes they had as children and what happens to them later in life.

Nick Broomfield - Documentary maker
The documentary film Trouble the Water was made by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, who had never made a film before. They had a camera just before the levees broke in New Orleans. They were part of the poor, black, community so they were able to make this unbelievable documentary while engulfed in water. They made the most personal biographical account of what happened. There are incredible scenes in it, such as when they go to the naval coastguard station to try to get temporary housing when they've all lost their houses. The troops turn their guns on them and say, "if you don't leave we are going to shoot you". It is an amazing portrait of the whole attitude of Bush administration to the poor blacks in New Orleans. I wish more people had the guts to tell their story with a video camera.

David Puttnam - Producer
My favourite film of the year wasn't really a film at all, but a set of DVDs produced by the BFI entitled Land of Promise. Many of these 40 short films are wonderful in their own right but, more important than that, they should be compulsory viewing in every school and town hall in the country. Every minister from the PM downwards, and every politician who has any ambition to be a policy- or decision-maker should spend Christmas watching the entire set, and be required to reflect on where Britain has been, and where we ought to have the ambition to take it. Anyone with any responsibility for the present financial crisis – if they have even a scrap of common humanity, will find themselves squirming with embarrassment when confronted with the sense of self-sacrifice, humility and courage with which this country dug itself out from the war years, creating the society on which they have preyed in such an unforgivable manner.

Nigel Cole - Director
Synecdoche, New York was a film that I didn't understand, and got thoroughly bored with in the second half. It was full of pretentious twaddle. I can't even pronounce the title. But, in a year which everything was mediocre, a sequel, a comic book, or all three, it was original, enormously ambitious and often made me cry. I also laughed like a drain. In his directorial debut, Charlie Kaufman almost invents a new kind of humour, and if you are going to paint humour a new shade of black, who better to have as your leading man than Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Imelda Staunton - Actress
I've Loved You So Long was subtle, understated and powerful. No big guns, just a story being told with the utmost dignity. Anyone who loves great acting and uncomplicated film-making should see this. Plus Kristin Scott Thomas gives a truly remarkable performance.

Stephen Woolley - Producer
As a member of the European Academy, the British Academy and the American Academy and having attended most of the festivals and been on a couple of juries this year, I tend to see films quite early. The litmus-paper test for me is a film that can withstand everybody else loving it. I saw the animated film Waltz with Bashir in Cannes and the hype for it grew. No matter how great the reviews were in the UK, the film was still as good because it is genuinely moving. The maker, Ari Folman, hasn't forced you into having an emotional response. It has very important things to say about Lebanon and Israel and, at the same time, it says those things in a dream-like way.

Eran Creevy - Director
I'll possibly change opinion as I catch up on 2008 in a DVD splurge, but for all-out entertainment, The Dark Knight is unbeatable. My girlfriend and I constantly turned to each other, mouths agape, gripping hands, as Christopher Nolan [the film's director] executed another masterful set piece. For me it successfully transferred the mythos of comic-book action into something resembling the real world. It felt like epic Seventies cinema in the vein of Serpico or The French Connection in contemporary blockbuster form. I walked out of the cinema hyped, blabbering, jealous, and inspired. Now, if that's not good cinema, I don't know what is.

Nick James - Editor of 'Sight and Sound'
Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, the multi-strand epic about the brutal gang-economy in and around Naples, might seem an obviously masculine choice with its live fast, die young, fatalism and energy. After all, it is probably the most absorbing and believable gangster film since the Godfather trilogy. But it stands above the rest for me, in a very weak year, for so deftly describing an alien and terrifying world from which its indigenous population can find no escape. One wishes that such a film would contribute to changing things in Italy, but my fear is that the chaos and cruelty this competing gang-life engenders may instead turn out to be the perfect microcosmic metaphor for our present and coming economic ills. Let's hope not.

Ian Freer - Assistant editor, 'Empire'
There are few scarier terms in the moviegoers' lexicon than "film poem", but Terence Davies's love letter/eulogy to Liverpool, Of Time and the City, is the stunning exception that proves the rule. Davies has assembled exquisitely picked archive material, a protean soundtrack (The Hollies to Mahler), and his own narration to create a personal yet universal essay. This is about so much more than a single city, mixing touching memory with affecting visuals that explore the lyricism of backbreaking work, regal excess in austerity and the changing face of Britain. Droll, angry, erudite, moving, this is the most poignant, beautiful, entrancing British film of this or any year.

Georgia Groome - Actress
Happy-Go-Lucky is a hilarious film about a primary-school teacher who always looks on the bright side of life and is tested by her driving instructor. It left me and everyone in the cinema full of optimism and uplifted; everyone came out with smile on their faces. The film was easy to watch and really pleasant visually, and it was never short of laughs. Mike Leigh's choice of casting Sally Hawkins as Poppy was genius.

Andy Burnham - Minister for Culture, Media and Sport
The film director Terence Davies looks at the history and transformation of his birthplace, Liverpool, in the visually stark documentary Of Time and the City. It has been Capital of Culture year in Liverpool, and the film captures the change in a city which now has a better sense of itself and its future. I was born in Liverpool, and this film does have an extra resonance because it is so closely bound up with a sense of personal identity and family history. It puts archive footage alongside newly shot footage of Liverpool and is overlaid with Terence Davies giving his personal reflections on Liverpool in what can best be described as a long poem.

Jamie Parker - Actor
There were a list of kick-ass films coming out in the mainstream this year, but Persepolis, about a young Iranian girl, was my favourite. The independent sector is generally where the surprises come from. You can enjoy the big movies, but it seems a bit bland to go for those ones without looking elsewhere. Persepolis was unexpected and it was full of a lot of contradictions. It was historical and informative but it was also very funny and human, and slightly goofy and stupid at moments, as well as tragic and wistful. Visually it was fantastically imaginative.

Sandra Hebron - Artistic Director of the London Film Festival
In a year when I've been impressed and moved by original, committed films like Hunger and Waltz with Bashir, I also have to confess to being seduced by the humour and eccentric charm of My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's autobiographical musing masquerades as travelogue, mixing archive footage, dubious reconstruction and droll narration to present a personal, pleasurably idiosyncratic ode to his native city.


The film of this year, and perhaps of this decade, is Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary There Will Be Blood, a story of American greed and gullibility in the oilfields of early-20th-century California that looks ever more pertinent in the light of current calamities. Anderson had already impressed with a couple of eccentric, freewheeling ensemble pictures, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but this feels quite different from those. It feels different from movies in general.

At its centre is a compellingly strange performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the self-made oilman whose soul is corroded by the acid of competition. His duelling with an evangelist preacher for possession of their boom-town is a mesmeric staging of the American struggle between capitalism and religion.

What makes it more remarkable – aside from its energy, its sense of place and its insistent theme of bad blood – is the spookily demented score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, a mixture of cello slides, percussive rattles and orchestral blarings that seem to catch perfectly the turbulence at work inside Day-Lewis's head. It all goes nuts at the end, but that's fine. This isn't a perfect movie – just a great, unrepeatable, one.